All the years when I was growing up, Labor Day meant a two-hour trip in the back seat of a rumbling old car (or what we called a “machine”) to the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio. When we passed a little road sign that said “VANDALIA” and saw a big billboard, we knew the next right hand turn on a country road led back to Grandma’s house. There were just a few other houses on the road and lovely country scenery on both sides – something foreign to us, coming from Cincinnati’s inner city. Finally, we got back to the little cottage with the screened-in porch, the big flagpole with the stars and stripes patriotically flying, and the dirt area that served as a driveway.
Sleeping arrangements were creative – people slept on couches or big chairs or sometimes on an ironing board between two kitchen chairs. We always seemed to sleep well, listening to the crickets chirping and feeling a breeze blowing in the open windows.
We would be awakened in the morning by Grandma starting a fire in the kitchen stove so breakfast could be prepared. There would be a trip down to the outhouse – along a path and far from the house. The chickens were chased out and we used the smelly hole-in-the-board toilet before walking up through the chickens and wild flowers to have our breakfast. We all took turns pouring very small amounts of cold water into an enamelware basin and washing up the best we could.
Breakfasts were hearty – bacon, ham, eggs, toast and real creamery butter, plus Grandma’s delicious blackberry preserves. There was a glass bottle of milk – not the evaporated variety in a can which we usually had at home – rich milk with a layer of cream at the top. In those days, the bottle was shaken vigorously before using to distribute the cream, but since I was undeniably the favorite granddaughter (mainly because I was named after Grandma), she would pour me a little glass of pure cream right out of the top, leaving milk for the rest of the group that was more like 1%.
After breakfast it was time to get spruced up for the big Labor Day Montgomery County Fair. The fair was an important event back then – we wore our best dresses and had our hair curled to perfection before starting out, crowded into the car with Grandma and any assorted relatives who were there at the time.
My parents – ready for the fair
We drove to the fairgrounds and each time it was a thrill to see the ferris wheel loom in front of us as we approached the gate and drove into the huge centerfield in front of the grandstand. In that 1930s-40s era, Dayton, Ohio, was very prosperous and the fair was considered one of the best in the area. Everything seemed large and modern and clean.
One year it poured down rain not long after we arrived and we had to huddle in the car for what seemed like hours. My father had gone to the horse barns to wait out the storm, but Mother, Grandma, my little sister, my cousin and I were stuck in the car, dressed in our finery, waiting to go out and see the sights. We were told to sit quietly and not get dirty which my cousin and I did, but my sister, Shirley, got down on the floor and got herself all tousled and grimy (at least in Mother’s eyes) so that when the rain finally stopped she wasn’t allowed to go on the grounds and had to stay in the car with Mother.
Grandma set out with my cousin, Dixie, and me and we looked around the exhibits and walked gingerly through the water-soaked midway. Grandma had bought all three of us identical yellow silk dresses with brown bows and accordion pleated skirts. She stopped at a a dime photo booth to have pictures made of Dixie and me and later Mother got Shirley straightened up, went out on the grounds and had her picture taken, too.
I liked walking around the fairgrounds and looking at the canned goods, baked items and various needlework exhibits. I didn’t care for the rides at all. My sister lived for the rides and I can remember her sitting in one of the little cars going around in circles and calling out to Mother, “Look, Mommy – I can let go and scratch!”.
What I loved was going to the grandstands and sitting by my father watching the harness races. Just the sight of the horses and sulkies with the drivers in bright-colored caps and coats was exciting.
We started back home late in the evening, riding along in the dark, looking forward to passing through Lebanon because I knew that was the halfway point. I just prayed I wouldn’t get carsick on the way home because my father was in a hurry and in no mood to stop. He had to go to work the next day and it was our first day of school.
The fair on Labor Day was a glorious ending to summer and a new beginning to the school year.